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Exotic America: Five-Star Campsite

Peter Waal

I take off my shoes and socks and feel the soft wool of the Persian rug under my bare feet. Pulling back the down duvet, I slip into my queen-size Adirondack bed, then yank the cover back up around my neck to fend off the evening chill. A little more heat would be nice, so I reach over to the nightstand, grab the remote control, and raise the temperature. Within a few minutes, I’m warm and snug. As I drift off to sleep, a stray thought strikes me: This is without a doubt the most comfortable experience I’ve ever had in a strange bed. It wouldn’t have occurred to me with quite the same impact if I were staying at a Four Seasons, but, here’s the thing: I’m in a tent.

The very idea of luxury camping is rather oxymoronic, but this campground—or Wilderness Outpost, as its proprietors call it—is an ideal alternative for people who simply aren’t prepared to rough it any other way. The Vancouver Island campsite is laid out with the simplicity and efficiency of a Zen garden. The 10 guest tents are connected to the dining, library, and games tents by raised cedar boardwalks. At night, torches light the pathways. Food is cooked by an executive chef and served on fine china. And a staff member is always on hand when you need one. I find myself wondering just how close to nature I’m going to get in what feels like a movie set.

But take one step outside the outpost’s boundaries, and things get very real, very quickly. The west coast of Vancouver Island juts out into the Pacific Ocean like a giant saw blade for almost 280 miles. This is an unforgiving place. The area around the outpost, known as Clayoquot Sound, has a rain forest so dense in some places that hiking is impossible, except on cut trails. Storms are a regular event, and the mountainous terrain is sparsely populated, teeming with bears and cougars. Yes, the salmon and halibut fishing are world-renowned, but the ocean is ice-cold year-round.


Despite the challenges, the stark beauty of Vancouver Island draws more than a million adventure travelers here each year, and Wilderness Outpost offers a host of activities that allow you to appreciate both the hazards and splendor. You can take expeditions around Bedwell Sound via canoe, kayak, sailboat, or even on horseback. Also, countless old logging roads serve as challenging hiking and mountain biking trails. Guides accompany you on each of the activities, if you so choose. 

 

The outpost’s head guide is John “Cowboy” Caton, 50, who doubles as the general manager and resident raconteur. His easygoing swagger and confident manner make everyone feel safe—or, almost everyone. When a jittery young woman from Texas asks if there are bears in the area, Caton knows he’s got a live one. “Oh, there’s lots of them around, but don’t worry,” he says, his eyes flashing beneath the brim of his black cowboy hat. To reassure her, he trots out the security detail: a black Labrador, an English setter, and a little Jack Russell. “These guys will keep any bears far away from us. Besides,” he adds with a mischievous wink, “the river’s full of salmon and the valley’s stocked with berries. Compared to that, we don’t taste too good.”

Fortunately, the “grub” prepared at the outpost does. After a hearty breakfast of poached eggs and smoked salmon, I sign up for the whale-watching excursion, which includes a picnic at Hot Springs Cove. By 9 am, four of my fellow campers and I are in a 25-foot, open boat heading out into the Pacific Ocean, which is no picnic at all. Our boat surfs the waves, crashing into 6-foot rollers with a force that jars my fillings. The scenery is breathtaking, but I’m working hard to suppress my nausea.


The hot springs are a welcome respite from the frothy sea. After a 45-minute hike through the rain forest, we emerge from beneath the canopy, tired and needing a spa. One by one, we choose among the seven naturally occurring hot pools—they decrease in heat as we descend a staircase of black volcanic rock toward the open ocean. I settle into the lowermost pool, which gets flushed by waves of cold seawater, giving it the temperature of a lukewarm bath. Taking in the fresh salty air, I listen to the wind rustle through the cedars and feel myself melting into the pool. I can just make out the waves foaming on the silvery horizon. I’ve surrendered.

It’s doubtful that anyone would have objected to spending the entire day soaking in the hot springs, but after a lunch of grilled beef tenderloin sandwiches, we make the return journey by boat, this time through a calm inside passage that’s known as one of the world’s best whale-watching locales. Soon, a migrating California gray whale breaches off our starboard side. The captain aims the bow in the whale’s direction and stops the engine. We glide silently alongside the massive mammal, close enough to snap photographs with a standard 50 mm lens. In the sudden silence that pervades the boat, it’s equally interesting to note the stillness and rapt attention of the spectators, all leaning toward the whale, necks outstretched, jaws slackened, speechless.

At dinner that night I notice my fellow campers have decompressed signi-ficantly. They’ve spent all day in the wild, leaving their own personal comfort zones in search of an adventure, whether out in the open ocean in a motorboat or paddling around the sound in a kayak. Indeed, a transformation is occurring. My own normally busy mind has slowed down, way down, almost in sync with the tide. Nervous Nellie from Texas, however, is still tentative. She spent all day at the outpost, never straying far from her tent. Caton encourages her to take a trip with him tomorrow. I decide to tag along.


The next morning, I head off with them and six others on a horseback ride through the river valley. I’ve never ridden a horse before, and I suddenly realize I’ve left my own comfort zone back in my tent. “Just let the horse do the work,” Caton advises. I want to, but as we near the river crossing, I feel a twinge of panic. The horse seems to be trying to decide which route he’s going to take. I don’t blame him, but I want to tell him he doesn’t have to cross if he doesn’t want to. Just then, he’s into the river, and I’m egging him on. It’s a real delight feeling the huge animal carefully plant each hoof on polished rocks with water flowing up to his knees.

After a daylong trip that takes us through old- and new-growth forests, past a glacier, and into an old ghost town that was formerly a mining settlement, the group returns to the outpost, remarking about the bald eagles we spotted and the quiet of the woods. Nervous Nellie, however, is so excited she can’t keep quiet enough, so Caton politely escorts her to a seat in the nearby woods that has been cut out of an old cedar stump and asks her to just sit there, without talking, for 20 minutes.

“I like to do that with some people,” Caton explains with an impish smile. I begin to question whether some of his guests really manage to find themselves in nature when they have Persian rugs in their tents, but it’s obvious that Caton goes out of his way to ensure it. As he says, some guests just take a little prodding: “Twenty minutes in these woods, sitting quietly by yourself, with the mountains looking down on you and the river rushing by—some people have never experienced this kind of peace and solitude in their entire lives.”


Caton should know. His former fast-paced career in the record industry and a heart attack at age 40 refined his knack for recognizing which of his guests needs a little extra attention in order to truly appreciate the wilderness. To aid in his recovery, he and his wife, Adele, moved their family from Toronto out to a farm in southern Ontario, where he rode his horses day in and day out until he felt his spirit return. It helps explain his Grizzly Adams touch with the animals—and the guests.

After 20 minutes have elapsed, Caton heads back to check on the woman he left to meditate. A while later, he returns to the outdoor kitchen, where several guests have gathered before dinner. The woman isn’t with him, but Caton is beaming. “She said to come back and get her in an hour,” he says, laughing. “Another victim!”

The Wilderness Outpost can be reached by floatplane from Tofino, which is a short flight from Seattle or Vancouver. Contact Clayoquot Wilderness Resorts (888.333.5405 or 250.726. 8235, www.wildretreat.com) for more information.

Base Camp
The wilderness outpost is part of a massive outdoor adventure program run by Clayoquot Wilderness Resorts. The hub of this ecotourism operation—a hotel built on the deck of a floating barge and anchored in Quait Bay—is a 20-minute boat ride from Tofino, the area’s largest town. Guests stay in one of 16 well-appointed rooms, spending anywhere from three days to a week or more on daily adventures around Bedwell Sound, including deep-sea fishing, kayaking, wilderness hiking, whale watching, sailing, and, of course, camping at the Wilderness Outpost. There is also a spa and traditional native longhouse that hosts corporate retreats, yoga classes, and cultural programs conducted by local native tribes. The dining room offers spectacular views of the sound and nearby mountains, as well as an occasional glimpse of a surfacing whale. There are more activities here than one trip could possibly accommodate, but for the best all-round experience, book the Outpost & Quait Bay Combination Package, which includes three nights in a tent and two nights on the floating hotel, plus activities.


Touring Torfino
After three or more days at the Wilderness Outpost, you may find yourself craving some societal stimulation. If so, a visit to the tiny town of Tofino is a nice way to ease back into civilization. A few minutes south of Tofino is the Pacific Rim National Park’s Long Beach, a major hit with surfers and beachcombers, with its eponymous stretch of sand that extends as far as the eye can see. It’s easy to spend a whole day strolling the beach, watching eagles nest in the trees, and listening to the sound of the rolling surf.

When you’re ready to explore the town, head for the native arts and crafts shops. Roy Henry Vickers, the most popular local artist, has a gallery called Eagle Aerie (800.663.0669 or 250.725. 3235, www.royhenryvickers.com), a replica of a traditional native longhouse where he exhibits his unique prints and sculptures. From there, it’s a short walk to the best restaurant in town, the Raincoast Café (250.725.2215). Don’t be fooled by the humble decor. The food more than holds its own with the very best that the region has to offer.

Tofino’s best-known resort is the Wickaninnish Inn (800.333.4604, www.wickinn.com), a small luxury hotel with a spa and a fine dining room, the Pointe Restaurant, featuring one of the most spectacular views of any establishment on the entire west coast of North America. The dining room is circular, set upon a rocky outcrop overlooking Chesterman Beach, just a few minutes north of Long Beach. In the winter, when Clayoquot Wilderness Resort is closed for the season, visitors to this area are well advised to check into “the Wick” for a few nights of storm watching from the dining room. Big Pacific storms are a fairly regular occurrence beginning in December, during which the waves break over the rocks and splash up underneath the restaurant while you eat.


For a more casual experience, check into Middle Beach Lodge (250.725.2900, www.middlebeach.com), just up the road from the Wick. Middle Beach offers both private rooms and larger cabins, the biggest of which are capable of accommodating up to 12 guests. The cabins all feature outdoor hot tubs and views of the ocean. The best part about Middle Beach is the lodge’s large, well-appointed lounge, where guests can stretch out and relax on long sofas and comfy chairs, and take in the ocean view through huge bay windows on three sides. With a fire roaring inside and a storm brewing outside, there’s no better place to be.

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Photo by Janos Grapow